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Why You Need to Think Differently About Protein & Use Exercise to Optimize Your Nutrition 

For the best muscle health, consider protein quantity, quality, and timing in your diet, along with an exercise program that focuses on strength training. 

Oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and fish and veggies for dinner. While sounding healthy, this approach to diet is lacking in adequate quantity, quality, and timing of protein intake necessary for optimal muscle health. Throughout my decades-long career as a registered dietitian nutritionist and researcher, I have witnessed how the lack of protein intake and poor protein timing have led to reduced muscle quality and physical function. That’s why I joined Vivo as a scientific advisor; Vivo is a science-backed, live, online, and interactive exercise and nutrition program. 

Vivo class.

Why Protein is Key for Health 

Protein supports the body by building muscle, repairing tissue to help keep skin and organs healthy, and makes antibodies to assist our bodies in fighting infection and disease. Unfortunately, in the United States, one out of every three adults over the age of 50 do not get adequate protein intake. This deficiency places people at greater risk for skin and hair changes, fatigue, and muscle weakness. 

Why Stronger Muscles Matter

Even if we do not desire to be a body builder, we all should aspire to strong, healthy muscles. Muscle strength enables independence and our ability to continue to do the things we love. When my 97-year-old great-grandmother began to get weaker, she lost her independence. I witnessed how detrimental that was to her mental health and quality of life. And throughout my research, I’ve seen that when people have the best tools for exercise and nutrition, they can maintain their independence and quality of life as long as possible. 

To keep our muscles healthy as we age, we need to follow three major principles: 1) distributed protein intake throughout the day, 2) high quality protein taken from animal sources, and 3) supplement nutrition with exercise, particularly strength training. 

Eat Protein Throughout Your Day 

Unfortunately, most American diets focus on protein-rich meals only at dinner. Research from my lab at the Duke University School of Medicine shows that we can improve function when 30 grams of high-quality protein is consumed three times per day. The repeated stimulation of protein synthesis that occurs with protein intake throughout the day helps maintain muscle mass as we age, providing the muscle necessary for physical function. 

Higher protein intake is even more critical as we get older. With aging, there are increased protein demands due to greater anabolic resistance or blunted rates of muscle protein synthesis. Sadly, low protein intake is also associated with higher rates of mortality and disability. The message is clear: we need to eat more protein and eat it more regularly throughout the day for optimal health. 

Eat Protein from Animal Sources 

Research shows that the highest quality protein source is that which comes from an animal because this protein contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle health. In particular, animal sources contain leucine which is a primary driver for muscle protein synthesis and growth. Look for lean animal sources, as well as consider eggs and dairy products to achieve 30 grams of protein intake at every meal. 

While there are other sources of protein such as nuts and beans, these protein sources are not digested as well in our bodies. As such, we are forced to consume more (and subsequently more calories) in order to reap the benefits to muscle health. 

Exercise to Optimize Nutrition 

Protein enhances the quality of muscle and when we combine that with an exercise program that incorporates strength training (working our muscles against resistance) the results are the most effective way to build muscle strength and physical fitness.   

About the author: Kathryn Starr RD, PhD is an assistant professor at the Duke School of Medicine and research health scientist at the Durham Health Care System. She is a scientific advisor for Vivo, an online, live, and interactive exercise and nutrition program built on the science of strength training. 


  1. What a wonderful review of the latest research. Do you have any specific recommendations of complete protein sources for someone who has high cholesterol?

  2. Plants have protein and a plant based diet is better for you and the planet. Better for the animals, too.

    “ A high-protein, exclusively plant-based diet supports muscle strength and mass gains in response to resistance training just as well as a high-protein diet that includes animal foods, according to a study published in Sports Medicine.Mar 2, 2021”

  3. Whilst I would have agreed with this article up til very recently I would now take issue with the idea that only animal sources of protein are really essential. I am taking part in the Zoe nutritional study which has analysed my blood sugar response and my blood fat response to different foods and most importantly analysed my gut microbiome through taking a Poop sample The computer programme then takes in all this data and I have a long printout of my gut bugs both good and bad along with foods that will promote more good bugs. The results are quite amazing and my food intake has changed. I have always eaten at least 5 plants a day but avoid processed foods and taken care to eat organic meat and fish on most days, but am finding that eating more plant protein suits me better . I know that this programme is available in the US as it was developed in US and UK so if you are looking for a personal nutrition programme rather than a one size fits all this is the way to go For those of you who may be interested there is a FB group the Zoe Nutrition group(Unofficial) where you can find out more and of course the Zoe page run by Zoe Dr Tim Spector is on of the co founders at Kings College hospital

  4. Most of my life, I have been vegetarian, pescatarian, and now I call myself a flexatarian, which for me means that at home I mostly cook vegetarian and when I’m at other people’s homes or a restauarant, I do my best to be flexible and will eat animal flesh if well raised and sustainable. My body is very happy with lots of nuts and beans as the protein. What I’ve learned is that I just need to add a lot more oil and fat into my diet. I sneak various types of seaweed in often too. But it’s the extra olive oil, coconut oil, ghee and avocado oil that I find mostly missing from the vegetarian diet. I even drizzle extra virgin olive oil over my whole milk, plain yoghurt and granola in the morning. I add a teaspoon of ghee or coconut oil to my tea in the morning or night. I’m 5’7″ and weigh 125#, so on the slim side. Increasing my oil intake also improved having regular and easeful bowel movements. In general, I run dry and the extra oil intake helps my skin and bowels a lot.


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